I have recently moved to Amman, Jordan, in order to satisfy my university’s requirement of a year of ‘field experience’ for my degree of choice. Unless you’re moving to Dubai or some other importer of the expat, you’re likely to come across some initial challenges. So if you ever decide to holiday, explore, or find work in the Middle East, my methods of blending into traditional Arab society will prove valuable. You may scoff at what I have to say, but I will assure you: in adopting a new character, you’ll seem less easy prey and thus enjoy your experience. You may also find my ideas can be put to use back home, whether you’re attempting to fit in at a new university or your witness protection just isn’t living up to the hype.
Let me begin by saying that it’s a good idea to wear sunglasses - all the time. This course of action operates as a twofold bluff. Not only does it help establish your most-probably-out-of-touch fashion sense, but it will also hide your frequent looks of bewilderment as you attempt to navigate through Middle Eastern life. It is common knowledge that if your eyes are covered, you can get away with most things – just look at the late, Ray-Ban sponsored, Gaddafi.
With fashion in mind, there is a lot to be said. The main, and most commonly talked about concern, is that of the female dress. Amman is liberal to an extent; you will find Jordanian women dressed in anything from the Niqab (fully covering attire, save for a modest slit for the eyes), to stereotypical western clothing (the exception being that arms and legs are covered). The recommendation for westerners is not to go native on this one. Dress modestly, covering bare arms, legs and chest and you’ll be fine. This won’t make you invisible from the stares but, as anti-feminist as it sounds, you’ll probably appear less ‘up for it’.
As mentioned before, a large part of appearing at ease with Amman is down to self-competence in trials of navigation. When in the taxi (the preferred transportation of most), you must give off the air of a frequent traveller. Comment on the taxi full of foreigners next to yours; the occupants will be finding it hard to hide their panic as they struggle to locate their non-existent seat belts. It is also wise, upon finding a taxi, to make sure they switch on the meter as soon as you get in. Don’t accept a fixed price, as this will always be higher than the actual journey cost. And take note that the meter will always begin at 0.25 Jordanian Dinars (JD) during the day and 0.30 at night. With regards to actually finding your way around, you must first overcome a somewhat unnatural obstacle; there are maps, but no one adheres to them. Your only choice is getting acquainted with the local landmarks. These will act as homing beacons for your drivers Unfortunately the closest notable building to my apartment is a major hospital. So be prepared for your in-car conversation to revolve around such things; “Are you hurt?” “Has your friend been in a war?” “Is it contagious?” These are just some personal examples.
Jordan is predominantly a country of Islamic faith, so alcohol is not as readily available as you may be used to. Still, there are places to buy it – if not at a bloated price. Pro tip: consume it in your home and nowhere else; cheap binges at your local play park are generally not encouraged. Alternatively, if you don’t want to feel like an ambassador of sobriety, there are plenty of expat watering holes to choose from. But be warned; attending these will undo all your hard work and any drunken attempt to reconcile with your western self may get ugly.
Sensible travellers of the region should also not attempt to relive any golden moments of their gap year. Jordan is the county in which UNCHR has a large base, serving the needs of those displaced by humanitarian crises and conflicts from around the Middle East. You may think then, that this is a volunteer’s goldmine, with suffering and hardship at every turn. Unfortunately this is not the case. Generally you need a Masters degree to be even considered for an internship, but the organization’s doors are always open so informal chats are still possible.
Before you arrive, it’s good to know what to expect when dealing with money here. Your currency will go far, if you’re sensible, but take note; the British Pound is nearly equal to the JD, so you may have to save a little longer before you can afford that maid-valet combo for your new home. Still, it’s better than dealing in US dollars, where the exchange rate is a meager 0.71 JD to the dollar. Actual products reflect the global market too. If you’re a fan of Kellogg’s or Nescafe, be prepared to pay a premium for the import; the only places you’ll get a fair deal are in the Souks (markets) of downtown Amman.
If you’ve absorbed at least half of what you’ve just read, then my job is done. Travel and holiday guides may be useful but rarely will they provide actual, boots-on-the-ground, accounts. The Middle East is a culturally rich and fascinating part of the world to explore; the trick to getting that authentic experience is to not be noticed. Jordanians are extremely hospitable and will rightly adjust their behavior to accommodate your habits. But if you let that be the case, there’s not much point in coming here in the first place.